Obama Administration Sending Mixed Signals On Marijuana

President Obama's recent statements on the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington are not consistent with his own Administration's policies.

President Obama is getting a lot of attention for comments he made in an interview with Barbara Walters regarding his reaction to the recent election results in Colorado and Washington that resulted in marijuana being fully legalized in both states:

President Obama says recreational users of marijuana in states that have legalized the substance should not be a “top priority” of federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said of pot users in Colorado and Washington during an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters.

“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” he said, invoking the same approach taken toward users of medicinal marijuana in 18 states where it’s legal.

Obama’s comments on marijuana are his first following Colorado and Washington voters’ approval of Nov. 7 ballot measures that legalize the recreational use and sale of pot in defiance of federal law.

Marijuana, or cannabis, remains classified under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I narcotic whose cultivation, distribution, possession and use are criminal acts. It’s in the same category as heroin, LSD and “Ecstasy,” all deemed to have high potential for abuse.

Obama told Walters he does not – “at this point” – support widespread legalization of marijuana. But he cited shifting public opinion and limited government resources as reasons to find a middle ground on punishing use of the drug.

“This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law,” Obama said. “I head up the executive branch; we’re supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we’re going to need to have is a conversation about, How do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it’s legal?”

The president said he has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to examine the legal questions surrounding conflicting state and federal laws on drugs.

“There are a number of issues that have to be considered, among them the impact that drug usage has on young people, [and] we have treaty obligations with nations outside the United States,” Holder said Wednesday of the review underway.

It sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Well, if you’re an advocate of federalism and individual liberty it certainly does. I’m among those people who believe that people should have the right to smoke marijuana if they wish to, and that individual states should have the right to legalize it in whole or in part if they wish to. Some would argue that it’s a hopeful sign that the President is saying that he considers going after pot smokers in Colorado and Washington be too low priority for the Federal Government. They’re correct, of course, but the problem is that the President said very similar things before becoming President four years ago. Back then, he told us that he would direct his Justice Department to not direct enforcement action against people involved in the medical marijuana business in states like California where it has been legalized. Despite that promise, the Department of Justice has continued to pursue cases against growers and dispensers in California and other medical marijuana state, and shows now sign of letting up. Given that, you’ll pardon me if I don’t take the President at his word.

Matthew Yglesias is also skeptical:

The simple fact of the matter is that the DEA doesn’t remotely have the resources to target, arrest, and prosecute recreational marijuana users. But Colorado and Washington didn’t legalize recreational marijuana use. They set up a framework for legal marijuana cultivation, for marijuana processing, and for wholesale and retail sales of marijuana.

The DEA doesn’t have the resources to target a guy for sharing a bowl with his friends, but they certainly do have the resources to target a large marijuana farm or a fixed-location marijuana retailer trying to establish a legal business. What’s more, they have the resources to arrest and prosecute state officials who involve themselves in the licensing and permitting for legal marijuana businesses. Given resource constraints, these are in fact exactly the bigger fish that the DEA has to fry that would make it unreasonable for them to be worried too much about recreational use. The actual question on the table isn’t whether the federal government is going to be able to replace state and local law enforcement, the question is whether the federal government will do everything in its power to subvert the new frameworks in CO and WA. The president’s statement to Walters is entirely consistent with a posture of maximum subversion.

That’s exactly the issue. The Federal Government rarely goes after the guy who has maybe a couple ounces of pot that he smokes himself or shares with his friends anyway. Quite simply, it isn’t worth their time or resources to prosecute cases that normally would be handled by the state authorities. Even now, with the state authorities in Colorado and Washington no longer prosecuting marijuana cases, those types of cases really aren’t worth the time of Federal law enforcement and U.S. Attorneys. The growers and sellers, however, are a different story. Just as they have in California you can expect to see the Federal Government cracking down on the “big guys” in Colorado and Washington and continuing to prosecute a failed War On (Some) Drugs for reasons that nobody seems to be able to explain logically.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Geek, Esq. says:

    Here’s a radical thought:

    Maybe get Congress to change the stupid law treating marijuana like LSD and cocaine?

  2. aFloridian says:

    To steal the phrase, those opposing marijuana legalization are now “on the wrong side of history.” Here in the South, opposition is probably stronger than anywhere, but I already see cracks in the wall as younger generations become decision-makers and are less inclined to pursue a hopeless and harmful policy like marijuana interdiction.

    The times are a’changin’ and Colorado is on the cutting edge of this one. I don’t necessarily like all of the implications, but I will still support a move to end this sorry War on Drugs and save so many lives and so many dollars.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Keep in mind that prosecutors have prosecutorial discretion and Eric Holder ergo could stop these prosecutions with the stroke of a pen. Like a lot of liberals from the Ivy Leagues, however, Holder at his very core merely is a few steps away from totalitarianism.

    It’s power for power’s sake.

    Whereas GOP administrations enforced federal drug laws as a result of misguided and self-defeating senses of duty to the law, a left-wing administration doing the same thing, and more, really is about the control factor. Being in control. Controlling others. Controlling “lower” governental units, such as states and localities. Again, power for power’s sake.

    So various states want marijuana to be legalized? That rubs Holder the wrong way. He is the law, as far as he’s concerned.

    More than anything this is a function of left-wing psychiatry.

    As far as Obama goes, with those comments he’s merely providing a dog & pony show for elements of his base. He knows full well DOJ won’t change its prosecution policies. And he doesn’t care about it. Why should he? The election already happened.

  4. Al says:

    The fact that Arellano Félix did two years in jail in the US convinced me that the War on Drugs was completely unwinnable. If that wasn’t enough the HSBC settlement should do it. Matt Taibbi does a good job of explaining just how hypocritical the settlement is.

  5. An Interested Party says:

    Like a lot of liberals from the Ivy Leagues, however, Holder at his very core merely is a few steps away from totalitarianism.

    Whereas GOP administrations enforced federal drug laws as a result of misguided and self-defeating senses of duty to the law, a left-wing administration doing the same thing, and more, really is about the control factor.

    That rubs Holder the wrong way. He is the law, as far as he’s concerned.

    More than anything this is a function of left-wing psychiatry.

    Considering the writer of the sentences above has already expressed his glee about so many parts of the “War on Terror”, all this talk of “totalitarianism” seems like projecting of the worst sort…and nice sophistry there–poor, innocent Republicans are merely enforcing the laws while Democrats want to be dictators…what a pathetic hack…

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    Yeah Doug it’s the major issue facing the country. I agree with you that the entire war on drugs is a farce but really get a sense of perspective.

  7. aFloridian says:

    Tsar Nicholas, are you really serious? Your arguments have no basis, and, even I were inclined to give them merit otherwise, the fact that you are attempting to insulate the Republican party from criticism for a terrible policy directive this country has obeyed for decades on the basis that they were just doing their “duty” completely undermines your credibility.

    Yes, the Drug War is about power. It’s also about money and misguided fears. The leadership of both parties has a tradition of being drunk with it all.

  8. Rob in CT says:


    If you are new here, and I think you are, you are probably not familiar with the Tsar. Suffice it to say that’s exactly the sort of nonsense comment we’ve come to know oh so well.

  9. aFloridian says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I am new here posting, but a long time reader familiar with Tsar. I do have an occasional urge to feed the troll, I suppose you could say.

  10. Stonetools says:

    Let’s face it, marijuana legalization is just not something the President wants to lead on right now. He’s going to let the current policy continue by sheer inertia, like it or not. Maybe after he puts out a opulent of the major fires he’s dealing with now , he’ll have time to deal with what’s a minor issue for him and the country.

  11. Graham says:

    @Brummagem Joe: For that sense of perspective, large swaths of Mexico are active war zones ruled by murderous outlaws as a direct result of US policy and influence. Tens of thousands of people, including children, have been brutally murdered in that country in the last half decade.

    On this side of the border, the “land of the free” has more people in prison than any other country on Earth as a direct result of prohibition. We spend millions upon millions of dollars investigating and prosecuting people who harmed no one except arguably themselves. Lives are destroyed, livelihoods seized, and families are torn apart every day in the name of the law.

    All to stop people from using a recreational intoxicant that science will show you is far less harmful than alcohol and far less addictive than nicotine or caffeine.

  12. 11B40 says:


    Shouldn’t your headline read: “Obama Administration Bi-evolving on Marijuana” ???

    I’m still serving my deportation to the San Francisco Bay area, so I was wondering if the large number of “grow house” fires since my fellow citizens drank up that “medical marijuana” kool-aid factors into any of your analyses. I mean a house fire isn’t the end of the world, for sure, as the locals say, but I’m sure that the near neighbors, if they’re not medicinally stoned themselves, could do without the experience.

    Bread and circuses, we got ’em, and guess what, you’re entitled.

  13. aFloridian says:


    I think Graham has a point here. In reality this is a very serious issue with far-reaching social implications.

    At the same time, I also think stonetools is right that the Obama administration, even if they DO favor wider legalization, will be content to allow the obvious inertia of the movement to carry it forth.

    I think one of the biggest changes this movement has seen, which gives it so much hope for eventual success, is that people like myself (and no doubt many of you) are now interested in seeing legalization become a reality even though we are not users ourselves. I don’t really care for weed, probably wouldn’t smoke it if it WAS legal, but I’d be more than happy to see fewer dealers roaming the streets, see more tax dollars in the coffers, not to mention fewer stories of people in the developing world dying for our bad habits.

  14. RGardner says:

    I’m in WA State (the only state that has to say state) and I voted for I-502 because I’m a bit libertarian, and I’ve become disgusted about the “get-out-of-jail-free” card that we have with medical marijuana. My city of 200K has 50-60 “green” dispensaries. Correct, one for every 4k residents, more than Starbucks (they even have their glossy magazine, “Dope.”. We have a serious issue with medical marijuana grow houses making jungles in the basements (each medical card holder can grow for 2 others, at 15 plants each = 45 plants, so 90 plants for a couple). You folks on the East Coast just don’t see the medical MJ sham we have had in CA, CO, OR, WA for the past decade.

    The new current status is MJ magically appears (you can’t grow it, sell it, or give it away – unless it is medical).

    Come Dec 2013 I expect the remaining converted State liquor stores will finally get some money when they can sell pot. But half will be bankrupt before then (they got taken by Costco, who wrote the law privatizing liquor sales).

    I recommend 2 CNBC programs:
    Marijuana Inc
    Marijuana USA

    It is all about money. I think the President might actually do some good in allowing states to experiment. Nevada has legal prostitution.

  15. Graham says:

    Oh, and in addition to being morally bankrupt and monstrous in scale, the suffering of the drug war is meaningless, because demand for and availability of illegal drugs has remained strong throughout the last 40 years.

    So even if you could somehow justify the deaths of thousands of Mexicans and imprisonment of millions of Americans in the name of prohibition, it simply never worked.

  16. Did you see ABCNews.com’s headline? “Marijuana Not High Obama Priority”

  17. Whitfield says:

    @aFloridian: I know that for some southern states, it is the state crop.

  18. James in LA says:

    The sham is that mj today is in any way a controlled substance. There are tens of thousands of THC-based products now available in CA alone. The commercial market matures by the hour, despite whatever the feds “do”.

    The President under the broad authority of the controlled substances act retains the power to change the schedule of drugs at will. Congress need not get involved.

    As for the scale of fish to be fried, I agree with the President, given the horrible powers still available to the “unitary executive.” We likely disagree on what must be done, because no President will ever willingly hand them back to Congress. They must be taken back.

    Conservatives have a real pathway back into the game by pushing a Liberty Agenda that includes ending the drug war, ending indefinite detentions, secret renditions, unsupervised drone attacks, and repealing the Patriot Act. You know, actual threats to our freedoms.

  19. aFloridian says:


    I definitely don’t have much of idea how the marijuana game actually functions out there. I’ve seen those documentaries and they do raise some concerns.

    Perhaps the thing to do is to restrict production to a greater degree and treat unlicensed production as we do with moonshine. I think the closer we could get to a regime like alcohol control the better.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    Conservatives have a real pathway back into the game by pushing a Liberty Agenda that includes ending the drug war, ending indefinite detentions, secret renditions, unsupervised drone attacks, and repealing the Patriot Act. You know, actual threats to our freedoms.

    That would require conservatives to actually be in charge of the GOP rather than the reactionaries, radicals, and apparatchiks who currently seem to be running the show…